Exploring the President’s Scholar Program: Lehigh awards top students with opportunity to pursue second degree

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Made with Canva/Samantha Tomaszewski, B&W Staff

For nearly two decades, the President’s Scholar Program has fostered a culture of academic excellence among Lehigh students on both an individual and communal level.

The scholarship was proposed by the 11th Lehigh president, Peter Likins, in 1995 to reward undergraduates for outstanding academic achievement by providing a free fifth year of study. During this 12-month period, students have the opportunity to pursue a second undergraduate degree, a graduate degree or assume an advanced project such as a thesis or an art portfolio.

Eligibility for the program is dependent upon several factors. In addition to having an overall GPA of at least 3.75, students must complete a minimum of 92 credits of graded work, reach the requirements for a first undergraduate degree and demonstrate their academic purpose for the year of study in their applications.

According to Registrar Emil Gnasso, the percentage of students who qualify for the scholarship varies from year to year but can range from 30 percent upward.

“Not all use the tuition benefit; Many have job offers, so not everyone stays and actually attends,” Gnasso said regarding the students who qualify.

“Students who accept the scholarship pursue degrees from all colleges,” Gnasso continued. “Depending on the economy, sometimes (students move on to) grad work (or) a second bachelor’s. Sometimes (it’s) just for research or areas of study someone didn’t have the opportunity to fit into four years.”

Although Gnasso explained that the GPA requirement was raised from 3.50 to 3.75 around seven years ago to account for changes to the honors thresholds, there has been no significant change in the number of students accepting the scholarship.

While students save a year’s worth of tuition, Lehigh also reaps the benefits of the ambition and work ethic the program requires of its candidates. The scholarship retains some of the university’s top students and can serve as an incentive for incoming students to attend Lehigh and ultimately improve the quality of the first-year class.

Leah Paulson, ‘14, a fifth-year student currently enrolled in the President’s Scholar Program, graduated in the spring with a double major in global studies and Spanish, along with a minor in Latin American studies. She is now pursuing an M.Ed. in the comparative and international education program from the College of Education. After taking four classes during the summer, she is currently taking three courses and plans to take three next semester.

“It’s an adjustment, and it’s a lot of independent work,” Paulson said. “They expect a lot from you and for you to do it on your own.”

Paulson hopes to teach English as a second language in Nicaragua after graduating. She currently works under the supervision of four professors in the CIE school, who she describes as helpful and supportive. Additionally, her program is internationally diverse, which helps enhance her learning experience.

“I’ve known about the scholarship since I was a freshman, and it has always been my goal,” she said. “The main reason I did it is because of a free year of school, and I would still have eligibility to row. I think it will definitely give me a leg up in that it’s a university certification.”

While some students like Paulson, who are able to accommodate their second degree during that year, other majors require more adjustments.

Chris O’Lone, ’12, graduated with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and decided to use the President’s Scholarship for a masters degree, which he received in May 2013.

“My experience during that year was pretty rough,” O’Lone said. “The master’s program in electrical engineering is typically a year-and-a half (or a) two- year program, but I condensed it into one so I could fit it within the scholarship.”

Despite having barely any free time, O’Lone says his favorite part was the experience he gained working under of his professors in an independent study.

“Looking back, using the President’s Scholarship was definitely worth it,” he said. “Without the courses I took during this time, I’d be pretty lost in my work now. Also, since I am currently applying to Ph.D. programs, I realized that (having) a master’s degree absolutely helps in making my application stand out.”

Students who are currently applying for the scholarship have high expectations for the future. Justin Carter, ’15, is a senior studying chemical engineering in the Integrated Business and Engineering program. He says the scholarship sparked his interest last year when he heard it mentioned among different students.

“I’m here to learn; It’s a better resume item, and I’m interested in a master’s degree,” Carter said. “It will give me a better shot at getting a better job, and the fact that it’s free helps out a lot. I want to get some type of technical job position and at some point pursue some type of entrepreneurial startup. IBE is big on that, and it would be a fun gig if I could make it work.”

While other colleges offer similar programs, the President’s Scholar Program is fairly unique to Lehigh. Each student works to pursue his or her individual goals, making the student body reflect Lehigh’s values for academic success.

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